Friday, March 07, 2008

Social Networking Patterns

I've had some interesting reaction to my post on Social Networking, that I wrote basically to apologize for making people wasting their time. After concluding that social networking is probably some sophisticated IT warfare weapon developed to harm productivity of the western countries, I've had an interesting conversation with Giulio Cesare Solaroli, the mind behind the Clipperz online password manager, about the fact that as platforms are becoming more open, intercepting users behavioral pattern is a key concern for any social web application.

I am not quite sure if the notion of pattern fits exactly the situation, but I blogged about it before, and then found site WikiPatterns which published a consistent catalog of behavioral patterns, that reflect themselves in the shape if the information. There are more than 50 patterns and antipatterns just for a Wiki, in a scenario with some evident boundaries, like

  • People are told to go to a wiki
  • The people working on a wiki are already some kind of group (development team, company, etc.)
  • They should share a common goal

A social networking tool such as LinkedIn, Naymz or Spock, has a similar high-level goal which is provide some form of valuable knowledge as a result of individual contributions by the user, but is far more open. Nobody asks you to go on a platform (well, … somebody invites you…), you're not necessarily part of the same group, and there is no such thing as "the common goal". I've asked myself "why do I keep my LinkedIn page updated?", and here are the answers.

  1. I like learning how a new tool works
  2. It's useful for my marketing as a freelance
  3. It's useful for my job, cause Web 2.0 and the like are part of my consulting portfolio
  4. I can't stand fake or incomplete information
  5. I hate writing CVs and LinkedIn looks like the right place to write information only once
  6. Vanity

There are probably some more reasons, but here we are talking only about the relationship between me and the tool. For some of my friends reasons are completely different, and some other are not on linked in and they're not interested to move in. But the tool is a networking platform, and this means that a lot more variables and scenarios are possible. I'll drop down something.

  1. What if somebody wants to connect with you and you don't know him?
  2. What if somebody wants to connect with you and you don't remember him?
  3. What if a friend connects with you but not in the right position?
  4. What if a friend endorses you for the wrong position?
  5. What if somebody asks for an endorsement?
  6. What if somebody endorses you, but you have no direct experience about the way he/she works?

Ok, one can develop some sort of "SocialNetiquette", but thinking about it is some sort of undesired side effect (it wastes brain cycles). But the key point, at least for me, is that I couldn't make up a consistent behavior. In other words, I don't give the same answer to the same question – after all, I am a consultant, so "It depends" is my mantra… As a result, some of my connection are strong, related to people I know well, that I've worked with and so on, but some are not. Are we abusing the tool? Or we're still using the tool the way it was intended. Or… does this question actually make sense?

A key argument about all Web 2.0 technologies is that providing strict rules about the way a tool is used is a losing approach. Tools should instead "follow" users needs and ideas and transform themselves into something that wasn't exactly planned in the beginning. It's sort of seeding something and then taking care of what's growing. More realistically, Linkedin can't ban users because they connected without knowing each other well enough (would you like to be interviewed by linkedIn police about your connections?), so its body of knowledge is made up of contributors which are not providing a consistent behavior (as individuals and as a crowd), which are posting incomplete and sometimes wrong information. Yet it works.

I still have the feeling of being part of a big experiment, but according to the Hitchhikers' guide to the galaxy, this does not necessarily mean that I am stupid.

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